As we step onto our college campuses for the first time, the thought of our future careers may be the furthest thing from our minds. Some of us haven’t even decided on a major yet, let alone what we want to do for the rest of our lives. Still, even if you are unsure what kind of career you want to pursue, there are things you can do to prepare for it from the moment you walk onto campus. Here are key things to accomplish each year of college to help plan for your dream career – whatever it may be!
Talk to a career counselor
The best first step you can take is to visit your school’s career center and talk to a counselor. They offer a variety of resources to students to prepare them for the job search, including resume reviews, interview workshops and networking assistance.
Your counselor may also suggest you take a career assessment test. Suzanne Dagger, director of career services at Hofstra University, recommends taking a career assessment to “learn how your skills, values, interests and personality can lead you to a college major and career choice.” If you have no idea what kind of career you might be interested in, these tests can help you figure out what kinds of jobs would be best suited to your abilities.
Join campus organizations
Being active in student groups and activities looks great on any resume because it shows that you know how to balance work with fun. However, you have to be selective about which groups to join. While there are so many exciting options available, you don’t want to put too many things on your plate.
Temple University senior Lindsey Murray started out by joining just a few organizations, including Temple’s chapter of Her Campus. “It can be really tempting to join everything that interests you, but I tried to stick to just one or two things so that I could still balance schoolwork and friends without being overwhelmed,” she says.
On-campus activities count as experience, so if you have an idea of what kind of career you would like to pursue, focus on becoming involved with groups that are related to that field. Those interested in foreign affairs can participate in Model United Nations or join the international club to interact with students studying abroad at your school. If you’re majoring in a STEM field, there are academic and professional associations to connect students and promote your field of interest, from aeronautics to pharmacology. Aspiring journalists can join the school newspaper or even start your own Her Campus chapter at your university!
Start making a resume
Dagger’s final suggestion for freshmen is to begin drafting a resume. This is the foundation of your job search: Every employer will ask for one, and every job seeker must have one.
Even as a freshman, you may already have several things you can put on your first resume. Because you’re fresh out of high school, you can still include any high school achievements, awards and activities. Think back over those last four years and list any clubs you were involved in. If you worked or volunteered during the summers, include that as well. These count as experience that will be replaced with internship and work experience as you continue through college. You’ll also want to list your education, your GPA and any academic honors you received.
Remember, you’ll want to replace your high school information with relevant things from college once you gain more experience. But for now, a complete resume can be drafted with accomplishments you already have. As always, your career counselor is available to help you with the resume-writing process.
Bonus: Add to your resume
While it’s okay to stick to high school accomplishments at first, if you know what kind of career you would like, you can also start to look for new experiences to add to your resume. This can be an internship, a part-time job or even a temporary position at a company or business.
These positions will not only build your resume, but they will also give you insight into your potential career field. Lindsey learned this when she began to write for a health and fitness blog at the end of her freshman year. “It wasn’t the world’s most popular blog, but it really taught me a lot about the world of pitching, writing and reporting,” she says.
If you know your desired industry, then use these early experiences to help determine if this is the industry you really want to go into.
Take on leadership roles
After you’ve settled into the college routine, you can get more involved on campus. Taking on leadership positions will help you learn valuable skills—such as communication, teamwork, management and problem-solving—that will be in high demand when you start applying to jobs.
During her sophomore year, Lindsey continued to stay involved with her school’s Her Campus chapter. Through her dedication, she was promoted to health and fitness editor her spring semester. The opportunity to manage other students and demonstrate her expertise was an invaluable highlight to her resume.
You can run for student government or take a leadership role in your favorite organization you joined as a freshman. If you’re finding it hard to get leadership roles as a sophomore, you can start out by taking on different roles, such as public outreach to help recruit new members for your group, or volunteering your time to help prepare for an upcoming event. You can even start your own student group if you didn’t find one you were interested in!
Begin making connections
As you get more involved on campus, you’ll start to meet new people, many of whom might share your career field of interest. It’s important to begin building a network of people you can reach out to when your job hunt really gets underway.
“Begin to make connections with faculty,” Dagger suggests. “Start to attend events where employers and alumni may be present and introduce yourself.”
Visit your favorite professors during office hours. Ask questions or discuss what you found interesting about a recent lecture—it shows an interest in what they teach and provides a good foundation for building a relationship.
You don’t have to limit yourself to just the people currently at your school! If you know of an alumni event happening, go. You can also ask for an introduction: If a professor knows a graduate who works in a field you’re interested in, ask if he or she would mind reaching out to the alumnus with a request to contact you. Let the alumnus know you are interested in that field and would love to ask for some advice or insight. Connecting with someone who is already established in your industry of interest is a huge plus. If your relationship develops enough, the alumnus's network may also become yours.
Create a LinkedIn profile
Once you begin to connect with so many people, it’s important to keep track of them. And what better way to do that than through a social networking service?
“Create a LinkedIn profile to stay connected with your growing network,” Dagger says. LinkedIn is a business- and career-oriented social network that lets you keep in touch with professionals in the field you are interested in. Remember when you sent friend requests to everyone you met during freshman orientation? It’s kind of like that: LinkedIn is the Facebook of the business world.
Having a complete and professional LinkedIn profile is going to be key in your job search, as most recruiters use the platform to find and screen applicants. However, it’s going to take a bit more work to set up than Facebook.
First, you’ll need a professional headshot – ideally against a white background – for your profile pic. (See if you can find a photography major on campus to do it for free. You get your headshot, and she can add your picture to her portfolio—networking at its finest!) Make sure to completely fill out your profile with any and all experience you have up to this point. Once everything is all set, you’re ready to go! Start by connecting with friends, classmates and others you know from your university. Then, branch out to professors and alumni. Once you’ve completed any internships or work, you may want to add your supervisors as well. Before you know it, you’ll have dozens of connections and a solid network under your belt.
Apply to internships
Internships don’t just look good on your resume; they may also be a requirement for some of the jobs you want to apply for. Companies want to see that you have experience in their field.
Therefore, it’s important to start looking for internships early! Take it from Lindsey, who scheduled all her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays her sophomore year so that she could intern with Philadelphia Magazine. “Most people wait until their junior or senior year to start interning, but I really recommend starting as soon as possible,” she says. “Because I started out so early, I was more qualified for more competitive internships later down the road.”
Dagger agrees that sophomore year is a good time to start interning. Having internships under your belt will give you a leg up when you apply for more internships next year.
If you’re not sure what kind of internship you would want, ask your career counselor for help. He or she might advise you to look to your personal history and determine what you’re interested in. What clubs are you a part of? What leadership roles have you taken on? What do you do in your spare time? Do you like to read or write, design things or watch Food Network? Look to your hobbies; an internship with a fashion magazine or in the food services industry could be perfect for you.
Starting your internship search early will also give you more time to figure out what you want to do after graduation. If you turn out not to like an internship and decide not to pursue a career in that field, you can prepare yourself to start down a different path as soon as possible.
Reminder: Update your resume!
Remember how you started making your resume last year? It’s time to add to it! Take off some of the high school activities and replace them with the experience you gained this past year. List student groups you joined and any leadership roles you held. Add your college education information, including your declared major and your current GPA. If you managed to get any internship or work experience, be sure to list that, too!
By junior year, most students are pretty settled into life at college. This is a good time to start getting involved off campus as well. Many students choose to study abroad their junior year, as they’ve already become established at school and the stresses of preparing to graduate haven’t hit yet.
Studying abroad can be a big resume booster because it offers global experience. Like on-campus leadership roles, studying abroad will provide you with skills that many companies are actively seeking out, such as fluently speaking a second language, feeling comfortable in a potentially strange place and being able to see things from a different point of view. Because we live in a diverse and globalized world, employers want to see applicants who are comfortable working with various people in a wide range of environments.
If your ideal career focuses on foreign languages and cultures—such as working as a translator with the United Nations, or even with outsourcing tech companies—then experience in your country of choice might be the deciding factor in your application.
Apply to internships
If you didn’t do an internship last year, junior year is when you really need to crack down on getting that internship experience.
“Active applications for internships should be happening,” Dagger says. Remember, you need this experience to build your resume, and it may even be required for the type of job you want to get once you graduate.
Summer is a popular time to intern for many college students. With this in mind, Lindsey took steps to prepare well in advance. “I took my hardest classes related to my major junior year so that I would be prepared for my internship in the summer,” she says.
Luckily, if summer doesn’t work for you, internships can be offered year-round. Spring and fall internships are popular, as well as “winternships” to cover the downtime between semesters. Decide when you want to gain this experience and be sure to make the deadline to apply.
If you had an internship experience last year and you didn’t enjoy it very much, use this year to go in a new direction. If you have several differing hobbies or are still unsure exactly what kind of job you want after graduation, choose an internship that’s vastly different from the one you had before. Hopefully you’ll be able to hit on something you love!
Practice your interviewing skills
Interviews can be one of the most stressful parts of the job hunt. Whether they’re over the phone or in person, answering those questions in such a high-pressure environment can be a daunting task. But because interviews are a staple of the job hunt, you’ll need to practice!
Dagger advises that juniors work on interviewing skills with their career counselors. It’s a good idea to have responses prepared for the most common questions that interviewers will ask and practice these with someone who can critique your performance. While there are typical answers, it’s important to remember that the interview is going to be tailored to you.
“An interview is a conversation,” says Paul J. Bailo, author of The Essential Phone Interview Handbook. “It is sort of like a tennis match. I hit the ball, you hit the ball.”
It’s important to practice having this conversation so that you’re comfortable when it’s time to perform. Many career centers offer mock interviews with career counselors—try one out!
Reminder: Update your resume!
Don’t forget to add any internship experience you gained during your junior year to your resume. If you’re planning on a career that’s related to your major, add your major GPA as well as your cumulative GPA to the education section. This shows that you are knowledgeable in your field of interest.
Create a job-search action plan
You’ve already made many great strides towards that future dream job, but there’s still work left to do! One thing is to make a specific job-search plan.
Your job-search action plan details things like the kinds of jobs you’re interested in, the specific companies you want to target and the number of applications you’ll send out per week. Spreadsheets are a great way to stay organized. You can create two: one to plan your search, and another to track your progress. The first is your timeline, where you list out how many jobs you’ll apply to and when you’ll do so (For example, you apply to five jobs per week). Once you’ve targeted companies you’re interested in, put them on your timeline starting with application deadlines that are approaching fast.
Second, you’ll have a tracking spreadsheet that will help you keep track of who you’ve applied to and any follow-up information. On this spreadsheet, you’ll want columns for the job title; the date you applied; the company name, location and website; and the contact info of the hiring manager. Include a column for any notes, such as any other documents you sent and the date of your scheduled interview.
Update these spreadsheets as you start the job search. If you hit your milestones, such as applying to five jobs this week or scoring an interview, give yourself a reward! Vintage shopping spree, anyone?
Collect your references
Before you start applying for jobs, make sure you have all the necessary documents: transcripts, work samples and references. It’s also time to tap in to the network you’ve worked so hard to build up.
“Collect professional references or letters of recommendation,” Dagger suggests. “Network with alumni and stay in touch with internship supervisors.”
References are important because they’re going to back up what you say during the job hunt. Employers will contact your references to assess your character, learn about your personality and determine what you’re really like in a professional working environment.
Always ask before you list someone as a reference. At the very least, it’s courteous to notify people that they may be contacted to speak on your behalf. Notify your professors, mentors, advisors and supervisors that you are currently looking for your first job and that you would like to use them as a reference. If a recommendation letter is required, be sure to ask people well in advance to give them enough time to help you.
Attend career fairs
The last thing that you can take advantage of as a senior is to attend your campus career fairs. These events are specifically catered to graduating students looking for jobs. Career fairs are full of companies looking to recruit some of the best and brightest minds that your graduating class has to offer.
Make sure that you bring along a few copies of your resume and you dress professionally. Your school should provide a list of attending companies, so be sure to target businesses you are interested in before you go. Research the companies and be sure to ask relevant questions at the fair.
Networking with potential employers could make or break your job search. You want to appear personable and enthusiastic, because employers want to hire people they want to work with who are passionate about the job. Making a good first impression in person could open up opportunities for you.
Reminder: Finalize your resume!
It’s time to spruce up that resume to send out to potential employers! Make sure all of your experience from high school is removed—it should be replaced by newer, more recent experiences from college. Include relevant work, internship, volunteer and leadership experience gained during your four years of college. List the degrees you’ll graduate with as well as your GPA.
Remember to tailor your resume to the jobs you’re applying for. Your internship at that fashion boutique may not be that relevant if you’re applying to be a business analyst at a Fortune 500 company. Continue to see your career counselor for help with updating your resume for each job you apply to—he or she will be there for you through the end!
You don’t have to wait until your senior year to start planning for your future career. Whether you come into college knowing what you want to do or you have absolutely no idea what kind of job you might want, working to accomplish these steps each year can help put you on the path to getting that dream job.